Well, it sure was a strange and subversive Fourth of July gift Disney decided to give the country with The Lone Ranger. The movie, which is actually a lot better than most critics would have you believe, inspires feelings ranging from disrespect to downright scorn for the following institutions: the U.S. military, the U.S. government, American capitalism, and the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer), who starts out as a bumbling tenderfoot lawyer named John Reid. At one point, his savior Tonto (Johnny Depp) drags kemosabe through horse manure. That’s right, the Lone Ranger gets scat-bombed by noble Silver himself. I can picture, with some glee and schadenfreude, the apoplexy of such cultural guardians as Michael Medved at the notion of the House of Walt exposing millions of American children to such … such blasphemy!
Perhaps predictably, I had a fine time. The Lone Ranger stays up a bit past its bedtime at two hours and thirty minutes, though such blockbuster bloat is par for the course with director Gore Verbinski, who guided Depp through the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (not being a fan, I only saw the first). The film lurches forward with the weight of serious money, much of which is put to good use evoking the American West of 1869 on a scale you’re not likely to see again on the big screen any time soon. The budget is also on the screen in a clear-eyed and exhilarating climax involving two trains. Verbinski shoots action cleanly and unabashedly, the way Spielberg in his prime used to, and the way James Cameron still does, on the rare occasions these days that he can be bothered to do so.
There’s been some kerfuffle, some of it understandable, at the presumption of Johnny Depp playing Tonto instead of a Native American actor. Depp, who claims (like seemingly eight out of ten other Americans) Cherokee or Creek ancestry and was last year adopted into the Comanche Nation, has his heart in the right place, I think. If you can find the only film he directed, 1997’s The Brave, you will find a man very in tune with the bitterness and rage of indigenous Americans. And then there’s Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man, wherein Depp’s dying white man William Blake was befriended by a Native American and sent off to the other side in ceremonial raiments. At times, The Lone Ranger plays like William Blake’s final fever dream in the canoe carrying him across the river of ghosts, only here he imagines himself as the Native American who saves a white man. Depp’s Tonto is weird and unstable, driven mad by the genocidal treachery of white men. I would place Tonto as the missing link between William Blake and Raphael from The Brave. It’s not the goofball redface-Jack-Sparrow turn the ads lead you to expect; the performance has the derangement of pain in it.
The official plot motor has John Reid and Tonto teaming up to capture the evil Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner in a performance of supreme scurviness), but just nabbing him doesn’t get the job done; the tendrils of corruption that animate Butch reach deeply out from the “values” on which America was founded (along with a thick layer of non-white bones). You can’t just shoot this bad guy: there’s a whole government/nascent-corporate apparatus backing him up. Against this, Reid and Tonto are obliged to obscure their faces and charge forward. By the way, this is all related to us in flashback by the old and decrepit Tonto, as in Little Big Man, and the film tries on costumes from what must be dozens of other westerns. It’s an epic western amusement-park ride, though “amusement” isn’t quite the word — bemusement, maybe?
“The Noble Savage,” reads the condescendingly oxymoronic banner underneath the old, posing Tonto (it’s 1933), and The Lone Ranger puts the lie to both words while redefining most every white man on the screen as an ignoble savage. I don’t mean to harp so much on the political message of what’s essentially an escapist summer blow-out, but there is more under the hood here than the media wants to talk about (mostly the angle is how much it cost and how poorly it did over the holiday frame). There is probably a valid reading of the film as klutzy white-guilt self-congratulation: See, at least one white man joined forces with the insulted and injured against the behemoth of Manifest Destiny. Despite his best efforts, though, an entire Comanche tribe gets mowed down by America’s great new innovation, the Gatling gun. (The weapon is some five years anachronistic for 1869, but we’ll let it pass.) Since few ticket-buyers were up for this Fourth of July history lesson, there will be no Lone Ranger 2 in which Reid and Tonto continue their fight against injustice. For that, I gather, we must look to superhero franchises for the foreseeable future.